While the Jewish state has hit militant targets in Syria multiple times, it has refrained from attacking similar groups in far-away Iraqi territory. But that could change.
After it was reported in October last year that Iran might have deployed short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq, the anxiety of Israeli officials over their main regional foe was heightened.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quick to retaliate, saying that his country will counter any Iranian threat wherever it came from.
That was a significant development as Israel had already used its jets to strike suspected Iran-backed militias in neighboring Syria, with which the Jewish state shares a border.
During the seven-year long Syrian civil war, Israel reportedly struck militant positions in the country more than a hundred times.
But it had largely refrained from carrying out any military action in Iraq, where Iran also exerts political and military influence.
On December 31, Major General Tamir Hayman, the chief of Israel’s military intelligence, reiterated the concerns of Israeli leaders, saying: “Iraq is under growing influence of the [covert Iranian foreign operations unit] Qods Force and Iran.”
The Israelis have long seen Iran’s involvement in Iraq as a way to establish a land route to supply weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia militant organisation that has fought Israel on multiple occasions.
“For the Israelis the presence of militias in Iraq is not an issue. They pose no threat to them. But if that presence enables Iran to place its missiles that could reach Israel then Israel will try to establish terms to take them out,” Joost Hiltermann, Programme Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told TRT World.
“I am not saying that this is going to happen but there are people in Israel who are basically telling the Iranians not to do it.”
Israeli fears have been triggered by the perception that Iran is trying to equip Hezbollah with precision-guided missiles in Northern Iraq, Hiltermann explained.
Unlike Syria, Iraq doesn’t share a border with Israel. But Iran-backed militias have fought Daesh in both countries and left Tel Aviv wondering about the lingering effect of those fighters on its future security.
“Iraqi Shia fighters have trained and fought in Lebanon and Syria. Both countries border Israel,” Phillip Smyth, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told TRT World.
“And Iraqi Shia units in Syria have announced they not only plan to attack Israel from there, but that in a future war, they will aid Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
While Israel’s superior airpower can easily take out Iranian targets, having Shia fighters on the ground lets Tehran create a deterrent against the Jewish state.
Israel views Iran’s nuclear programme suspiciously, saying it has kept the option of hitting the Iranian enrichment facilities if necessary.
“Wars aren’t won by airpower alone. Of course, Israel’s air force is a major strategic asset, but in any future conflict — especially more decisive ones — ground forces are always necessary,” explained Smyth.
However, Iran has also faced setbacks in Iraq in recent months. During protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basrah over a lack of basic services, people also vented their anger against Iran and its militias.
In September, protestors burned the Iranian consulate and the offices of its militias in the city.
But Hiltermann says the current Iranian leadership comprises of people who suffered the devastating chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
“For them Iraq is essential in terms of security and strategic depth. Iran’s influence in Iraq remains strong as Iranians have infiltrated the security institutions,” he said.
The Iraqi elections last year saw political parties not aligned to Iran win the elections. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean Iran has any less influence than before.
“The Iranians control the second largest bloc in parliament, they gained official government recognition for their militia groups in Iraq, and they continue to recruit, train, and send Iraqi forces they control off to various fronts,” said Smyth.
“Of course, Iran has been met by a wave of anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalism, especially from Muqtada al Sadr's camp, but Tehran is in this for the long term. Their long term gains far outweigh their recent losses.”